Saints relying on many rookies, first-year players

It would be safe to say that few — if any — New Orleans Saints’ fans had ever heard of Tim Lelito, an undrafted free agent from Division II Grand Valley State in Michigan, when he signed with the team in late April.

The same goes for Josh Hill, a strapping tight end from Idaho State, and Khiry Robinson, a shifty running back from West Texas A&M.

While highly-prized draft picks like Kenny Vaccaro, John Jenkins and Kenny Stills needed no introduction when training camp began in late-July, Lelito, Hill and Robinson — for all intents and purposes — had to introduce themselves to the coaching staff first.

Yet, they’re part of the largest group of rookies and first-year players to make the Saints’ 53-man active roster since the arrival of Payton, who’s never shied away from keeping rookies and first-year players around.

If Payton has said it once, he’s said it a hundred times: He doesn’t care where you came from, or how you got here, as long as you can play.

That certainly applies to the 90-man camp roster that was trimmed to 53 players Saturday afternoon per NFL rules.

Payton’s roster includes 10 rookies and two first-year players who have never played in an NFL regular-season game — which accounts for 22.6 percent of the Saints’ roster.

According to NFL records, the 12 rookies and first-year players the Saints had as of Tuesday tops the 11 Payton kept in his first season in 2006 when he was trying to turn around a 3-13 team he had inherited.

Of course, the number of newbies could change by the time the Saints open the season Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, but it’s still a lot for an established team that’s had three winning seasons out of the past four.

“I don’t think we pay much attention to that, really,” Payton said when asked about having that many youngsters on the roster. “We look closely at how they’re going to fit into the (game) plan, how they are going to play in the kicking game, and the progress they’ve made in their position group.

“That (number) is not something that we really look closely at.”

The list of rookies and first-year players includes four of the Saints’ five draft picks — Vaccaro (first round), Terron Armstead and Jenkins (both third round) and Stills (fifth round). Sixth-round draft pick Rufus Johnson was cut, but cleared waivers and is now on the practice squad.

Six undrafted free agents, also the most under Payton, made the roster.

In addition to Lelito, Hill and Robinson, defensive end Glenn Foster, cornerback Rod Sweeting and linebacker Kevin Reddick made it.

Robinson led the team in preseason in rushing yards (228) and receptions (11), while Foster had a team-leading four sacks.

The first-year players are wide receivers Nick Toon and Andy Tanner, who finally earned a spot after spending the last week of 2010 and the entire 2011 and ’12 seasons on the practice squad.

The Saints have a long history of mining undrafted talent. They’ve had at least one undrafted player make the roster every year under Payton, but this is the first time they’ve had more than two in any season.

“That would be high,” Payton said of having six undrafted players earn a roster spot. “I would say we have an unusually (high) handful of undrafted free agents right now, and that’s encouraging.”

From 2006 to 2012, the Saints had 53 rookies and first-year players on opening day rosters. Eleven of them made the roster in their first training camp after not being drafted.

Among the more prominent players that have made it are running backs Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet; and linebackers Junior Galette, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Jonathan Casillas.

Payton said he believed their success with undrafted players may help them when they recruit players once the draft starts to wind down.

“I think at times that it has helped us sign a player, specifically like a guy like Glenn Foster,who had other teams interested,” Payton said. “One of the selling points is we’re going to play the best players, and a guy who’s a free agent out of college will have the same opportunities as draft picks.”

Lelito saw an opportunity and seized it. He worked with the second-team offensive line throughout training camp and got a chance to go with the No. 1 offense in the third exhibition game at Houston when All-Pro Jahri Evans didn’t play and backup Eric Olsen was injured.

After recovering a fumble by Cadet in the second exhibition game, Lelito alertly fell on a fumble by Robinson for a touchdown in the preseason finale at Miami.

But Lelito, who also learned to play center in his short time with the Saints, said he still didn’t know for sure until Saturday afternoon.

“They texted me about 5 (p.m.) and it said, ‘Team meeting at 8:30 Monday morning. Be there … congrats,’” he said. “I was like, ‘All right, cool.’

“I think what happened was I showed versatility and I showed physicality. And to play both guard and center in the NFL … that’s huge.”

Hill was equally shocked after spending most of camp near the bottom of a depth chart that listed five tight ends — with veterans Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson at the top.

“I tried not to think about whether I was going to make it or not,” Hill said. “I was going to come to work every day and just do what I had to do.

“It just you shows (the Saints) know what they’re doing and they know the talent they want,” he added. “They bring in guys that can play no matter where they’re from. They recruit any kind of guy they think can play.”